Mikhail Voronin on His Early Years in Gymnastics

Like many top gymnasts, Mikhail Voronin did not set out to become a gymnast. He liked soccer and hockey much more. When he was 13, one gymnastics coach looked at his body type and turned him away. But he caught the eye of his physical education teacher, Konstantin Sadikov, and that’s how his journey got started.

As you’ll see below, coaches are often the central characters in Voronin’s 1976 autobiography, Number One (Первый номер), which is understandable. After all, his coaches helped guide him to success, and there was a certain mystique around champion coaches in the international gymnastics community at the time.

At the same time, Voronin is building a larger argument: his career was often mismanaged, and the coaches surrounding him did not always guide him or his teammates in the right way. (This point will be further emphasized in the chapter on the Mexico City Olympics, which will be the subject of the next post.)

Note: Chapters of Voronin’s book were translated into Estonian for the newspaper Spordileht, and I have translated the chapter from Estonian into English. The following excerpts come from the January 11, 1978, January 13, 1978, and January 16, 1978 issues of Spordileht.

Bildnummer: 06139072 Datum: 20.09.1966 Copyright: imago/ITAR-TASS Dortmund. The world competitions in gymnastics. Mikhail Voronin (first place, UDSSR, C), Tsurumi (second place, Japan) and Nakayama (third place, Japan).
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1968: Sovetsky Sport’s Critical Coverage of the Soviet Men in Mexico

Sovetsky Sport didn’t hold back when covering the Soviet men’s team at the Mexico Olympics. The main sports newspaper of the Soviet Union pointed fingers at Diomidov and Lisitsky for underperforming. It blamed Muratov, the head judge on floor exercise, for flashing a 9.90 for Kato Sawao’s optional floor routine — a score that bumped Mikhail Voronin to second place in the all-around standings. 

Even Mikhail Voronin was not spared from criticism. On the one hand, the newspaper posited that Voronin was competing without much support from his team. On the other hand, it pointed out that Voronin needed to upgrade his routines to remain competitive.

As we’ll see in an upcoming post, Voronin spent a big chunk of his autobiography responding to the criticism of Sovetsky Sport.

Note: You can find the main articles for the 1968 Olympics here: Compulsories, Optionals, Event Finals). You can find Sovetsky Sport’s coverage of the women’s competition in Mexico City here.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – OCTOBER 22: Mikhail Voronin of the Soviet Union competes in the Rings of the Artistic Gymnastics Men’s Team Compulsory during the Mexico City Summer Olympic Games at the National Auditorium on October 22, 1968 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
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1968: Sovetsky Sport’s Celebratory Coverage of the Soviet Women in Mexico

Sovetsky Sport, the main sports newspaper of the Soviet Union, had nothing but good things to say about the Soviet women’s gymnastics team in Mexico City. (As we’ll see, the publication had more than a few critical things to say about the men.) In particular, the writers applauded the performances of Natalia Kuchinskaya and highlighted the friendship among the gymnasts as the key to their success.

In this post, we’ll look at the newspaper’s coverage of everything from the compulsories to Larisa Petrik’s gold medal on floor — a feat that she never thought possible.

Note: You can find the main articles for the women’s competition here: Compulsories, Optionals, Event Finals, The Myth of Petrik’s Floor Score.

Front page, Sovetsky Sport, October 25, 1968
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1966: Voronin Remembers His All-Around Victory at the World Championships

What does it feel like to be in the lead after the first day of competition? And what does it feel like to hang onto that lead to win the all-around title? 

In his book, Number One (1976), Mikhail Voronin recounts what he was thinking and feeling during the World Championships in Dortmund, where he won the all-around title.

In addition to insights into his inner state, Voronin’s autobiography provides a few details that were not reported widely at the time. For example, the Soviet team had a new coach on the floor during the optional competition in Dortmund because the other coach was too nervous during the compulsory competition. And there are gossipy tidbits like this one: Sergei Diomidov had a fight with his coach before the 1966 World Championships, which made him want to quit the sport.

Below is a translation of the first chapter of Voronin’s book.

Note: The first chapter of Voronin’s book was translated into Estonian for the newspaper Spordileht (published January 4 and 6, 1978), and I have translated the chapter from Estonian into English.

Datum: 20.09.1966 Copyright: imago/ITAR-TASS Dortmund. The world competitions in gymnastics. Mikhail Voronin (first place, UDSSR, C), Tsurumi (second place, Japan) and Nakayama (third place, Japan).

1962: Čáslavská Wins the Tournament of Seven Countries in Tbilisi

Shortly after the tri-meet between Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and the Soviet Union, those countries faced each other once again in Tbilisi. Added to the mix were other socialist and communist countries, including Hungary, China, Poland, and Romania.

With Latynina absent, Čáslavská once again won the all-around title, proving that she would be a force to be reckoned with at the 1962 World Championships in Prague.

Below, you can find Sovetsky Sport’s coverage of the competition.

Čáslavská at. the1962 World Championships in Prague, Copyright: imago/CTK
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1962: Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and the Soviet Union Compete before Worlds

No surprise: The Soviet men’s team defeated the Czechoslovak and East German teams, and Yuri Titov, the 1959 European All-Around Champion, won the all-around title

The surprise: Months before the Prague World Championships, the Czech and East German women defeated the Soviet team, and Čáslavská won the all-around. 

Granted, the top Soviet gymnast, Larisa Latynina, was not present. However, Čáslavská’s victory over Astakhova was a harbinger of good things to come. After finishing behind Astakhova at the 1960 Olympics (eighth compared to third) and the 1961 European Championships (tied for third compared to second), Čáslavská finally beat Astakhova during this tri-meet. Then, at the 1962 World Championships, Čáslavská finished second, defeating all the Soviet gymnasts except for Latynina.

Here’s more about the tri-meet, as well as short interviews with several of the Soviet gymnasts. An interesting question came up: Would it be correct to give the judges the optional routines written out before the competition? Not surprisingly, all the athletes said no.


1961: U.S. Gymnasts Compete in the Soviet Union

In January of 1961, a group of Soviet gymnasts headed to the United States for an extensive tour of the country. Months later, U.S. gymnasts headed to the Soviet Union for a dual meet in August of 1961. In a show of friendship, U.S. and Soviet gymnasts alternated routines. Rather than having an entire team compete back-to-back, a Soviet gymnast competed on, say, vault, and then an American gymnast competed on vault.

Speaking of vault, one of the main stories was a three-way tie for the women’s vault title, which produced a rather cramped podium.

L. Latynina, M. Nikolaeva, and B. Maycock
photo: Pravda, August 25, 1961

In this post, you’ll find news coverage and videos of the trip.


1961: Soviet Gymnasts Tour the United States

In 1971, the Soviet gymnasts did a quick tour of the United States, competing at Penn State and Temple University.

10 years prior, in 1961, the Soviet gymnasts did a much more extensive trip. The women competed at West Chester, while the men competed at Penn State. On top of that, there were exhibitions across the country, including in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Urbana, Illinois; and a performance during an NBA game at Madison Square Garden.

The trip was arranged by the Amateur Athletic Union with the sanction of the U.S. State Department.

Below, you’ll find both U.S. footage, as well as Soviet and U.S. news articles. It’s interesting to see how the gymnasts were depicted in different publications and mediums during the Cold War.

Note: In the next post, we’ll look at the U.S. gymnasts’ trip to the Soviet Union for a competition in August 1961.

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Shakhlin on His Career from the 1958 Worlds through the 1966 Worlds

In the penultimate chapter of his autobiography, Boris Shakhlin takes us from the 1958 World Championships in Moscow to the 1966 World Championships in Dortmund. Along the way, he gives us a glimpse into his tactics as a competitor — ways that he and his teammates tried to throw their competitors off their game. He also shares little tidbits of information. For example, did you know that Soviet athletes received one cake for each gold medal that they won?

Here’s a translation of the fourth chapter of Shakhlin’s book.

Left-right: Takashi Ono, Yuri Titov, Boris Shakhlin at the 1960 Olympics . 1960. Comitato Olimpico Nazionale Italiano.
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Shakhlin on the 1954 Worlds, 1955 European Cup, and the 1956 Olympics

In the third chapter of My Gymnastics, Boris Shakhlin recalls his move to Kyiv, as well as his participation in the 1954 World Championships, the 1955 Cup of Europe, and the 1956 Olympics. Along the way, he tells some interesting stories:

  • How Yuri Titov learned to sing songs while doing pommel horse
  • How Viktor Chukarin survived a concentration camp during World War II
  • How the gymnasts burned their hands on high bar during the 1954 World Championships in the hot Italian sun
  • How he got the nickname the Russian Bear
  • How the all-around gold medal at the 1955 European Cup had a gymnast’s name pre-engraved on it (and it wasn’t his name)
  • How judging started during podium training — not on the first day of competition.
Shakhlin at the 1964 Olympic Games, source: Modern Gymnast